Addicted to Mammograms

Penn professor Robert Aronowitz weighs in on the debate over new breast cancer screening guidelines.
January 29, 2010

Last fall, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended that women begin regular breast-cancer screening at age 50 rather than 40. The task force, an independent panel of experts that provides guidance to doctors, insurance companies and policy makers, also recommended that older women have mammograms less frequently and advised doctors to stop counseling women to do regular breast self-exams. The guidelines are aimed at reducing harm from overtreatment. Predictably, the announcement ignited considerable, even heated, debate.

"It's the same debate that's gone on in medicine since 1971." – Robert Aronowitz

Robert Aronowitz, a physician and professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, weighed in on the controversy with an op-ed article printed in the November 2009 issue of the New York Times. “It’s the same debate that’s gone on in medicine since 1971,” he wrote, “when the very first large-scale, randomized trial of screening mammography found that it saved the lives only of women aged 50 or older.  Despite the evidence, doctors continued to screen women in their 40s.”

Aronowitz is the author of Unnatural History: Breast Cancer and American Society, which traces the history of breast cancer in America from the early 19th century. “Why do we keep coming around to the same advice,” he asks, “but never follow it?”

In this audio presentation, Aronowitz reads from his Times opinion piece, “Addicted to Mammograms.”